(originally published March 7, 2012)
For most of the history of the printed book, there were two ways for an author to get her work in front of readers: traditional publishing and vanity press publishing.
That kind of limited choice is so last decade.
Traditional publishing still dominates the book business. After years of acquisitions and consolidation, traditional publishing now consists of only six very large publishing houses, each of which controls numerous imprints (in-house brands): Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.
The way these publishers operate hasn’t changed much in a long time. Here’s a basic outline of how a trad pub deal typically works (for fiction):
- Author writes a novel
- Author finds a literary agent willing to represent the work.
- Literary agent puts the work on submission to specific acquisitions editors at specific publishers.
- Editor falls in love with the work and convinces other people at the publishing house that the publisher can make money selling this work.
- Author gets paid an advance against royalties; agent keeps a percentage as a fee; publisher turns the author’s manuscript into a saleable book. This includes editing, layout, cover design, publicity, distribution, and more.
- The book is published, first in hardcover, then in paperback one year later. Ebook publication and pricing varies.
Until recently, a novelist’s only option outside the trad pub system was to take the manuscript to a vanity publisher. The name itself suggests the contempt people in the business had for such companies. A vanity press would publish books “not good enough” for a real publisher, doing so only to satisfy the author’s “vanity”.
Unlike traditional publishing, the costs of vanity publishing are paid upfront by the author in cash; the author is the publisher’s customer. In traditional publishing, the costs are paid by the publisher and are recovered from the profits of selling books. Booksellers and readers are the publisher’s customers.
For most writers, vanity publishing was a costly indulgence. At great expense, they got to hold a paper copy of their book in their hands. But few, if any, other people heard about the book or read it.
Not vain, independent
Old-fashioned vanity publishing has been revolutionized by ebooks and print-on-demand technology. In fact, you hardly hear the term “vanity publishing” anymore. It’s been replaced by “indie publishing,” a label that encompasses an incredible variety of nontraditional publishing options.
This is an industry buzzword, but what does it mean? I find that many people are using the term “self-published” to broadly describe any book in any format that does not have the imprimatur of a Big Six publisher. But this fails to account for the various degrees of self-publishing and also the new nontraditional, professional indie publishing options out there. So let’s begin by breaking down what I consider to be types of self-publishing:
1. 100% pure self-pub:
Writer handles every aspect of book production, possibly setting up her own small press. Writer is responsible for editing (probably the biggest handicap relative to trad pub), cover design, layout, and distribution.
Advantages of pure self-publishing:
- Total control of content, design, pricing
- Can do e-book only, print only, or both
- All profits (after retailer commission) go to author
- Fast, once you know how to do it. Write something today, publish it tomorrow.
- In dollar cost (not time cost), the cheapest way to self-publish
Disadvantages of pure self-publishing:
- To produce a professional product the first time requires an enormous investment of time and effort by the writer
- If writer wants to hire help, finding trustworthy, competent editors, graphic artists, book printers, etc. is a challenge. Hiring help requires cash up front.
- Tough to sell the final product. Need a platform, and/or a really good publicist, and/or hundreds of hours of time to spend on promotion.
2. Assisted self-publishing:
Writer hires a “general contractor” to manage many of the non-writing tasks. Assisted self-pub includes pay-up-front models (subsidy publishing), and royalty-sharing models.
2A: Subsidy publisher:
Writer pays a company for a complete package of services to produce the manuscript as a paper and/or digital book. This is closest to what used to be called vanity publishing. Unlike old vanity publishing, subsidy publishing today is widely available, widely used, and has many competing companies providing services. Whereas a “vain” writer in the past had to cough up some serious dough to physically print some copies of his book, writers now can choose to publish in digital formats only, or to print copies of their books only after a sale has been made (print on demand). This makes it possible to “publish” paperbacks and sell them online without actually paying for the printing of a single copy out of pocket. Amazon’s inventory of such books is virtual. A copy is manufactured only when a customer buys the book. POD keeps authors’ upfront costs lower, though it makes their books more expensive for customers because the per-copy cost of producing a few books is higher than the cost in a large print run.
The big players in this market are CreateSpace (Amazon), AuthorHouse (which includes Xlibris and iUniverse), and Lulu. For e-book only self-publishing, other influential players are BookBaby, Smashwords, PubIt, and Kindle Direct. There are many, many smaller, independent outfits now providing packages of self-publishing services to authors for a fee. The big guys are not selective at all; they’ll print whatever words are given to them (barring anything that might get one of their executives arrested). Some of the smaller companies pick and choose their clients or screen the work. At times there is little distinction between these companies and small independent presses.
In my hometown of Sacramento, we now have a new self-publishing option courtesy of our public library. The I Street Press is an entire self-pub operation built around an Espresso machine, a kind of Xerox machine for books. You give it a formatted digital file of your book, and in about four minutes it spits out a fully formed, bound paperback book just like one you’d find in a store. At a cost of roughly $9 per copy (plus set-up fees), it’s comparably priced with other small print run publishing options.
2B: Assisted self-publishing: Royalty-sharing
Recently, several literary agencies and agents have started offering themselves as general contractors to get their clients’ work “self-published.” Typically the agents describe themselves as “consultants” but definitely not “publishers” because a firestorm of controversy has flared around the potential conflicts of interest inherent in agents becoming publishers.
Literary agents are indeed well-placed to assemble teams of skilled editors and book designers in order to independently publish their clients’ backlist books, pieces too short for a traditional publisher, experimental works, or books rejected by the Big Six. Dystel & Goderich, Andrea Brown, and BookEnds are early leaders in this type of venture. The financing arrangements aren’t fixed but generally the agents are not charging upfront fees. Instead they claim a perpetual commission from sales, just as they do with books sold to a traditional publisher.
2C: Assisted self-publishing: Boutique Services
I predict we’ll soon see a number of insiders from the traditional publishing industry create teams to sell packages of professional-quality services directly to authors without becoming “publishers” per se. There is a market for this niche. A writer who wants to avoid the subsidy publisher minefield could put up the money to get a professional-quality book edit and design without having to find and hire each expert on his own. This luxury boutique approach to subsidy publishing would be attractive to any self-publishing writer with enough cash on hand—especially those who are leaving traditional publishing to go it alone. For one classy example, check out Verbitrage, a nontraditional publisher launched by industry insider (and author) J. E. Fishman. (Read Folio #5 of Fishman’s “Publishing Primacy” blog series for more details.)
3. Not self-pub: Small presses
The next level closer to a traditional publishing arrangement is publishing with a small press (any press that is not owned by the Big Six). University presses, regional presses, niche publishers and many others fit in this category. It’s not uncommon for such companies to only publish a few titles per year. The key distinction that makes this “not self-pub” is the publisher, not the author, pays the costs of getting the book out there.
Because the publisher is investing its own money in developing the book, small or indie presses accept titles with an eye on the bottom line. That means that unlike self-publishing, the author must provide a manuscript that is commercially viable. You can self-publish the alphabet written backwards, but you won’t get a small press to foot the bill. This gatekeeper role is common to all publishing models that put the publisher’s money at risk (as opposed to the author’s money) and it remains a defining distinction between self-pub and all other publishing models, indie or not.
It is also at the heart of the prestige question. If self-pub works get less respect, it’s because no objective third party has evaluated the works and decided that they are “worth” publishing. Gatekeeping can keep trash out of the publishing pipeline, but it also can sift too finely. Publishing value is determined not so much by the “quality” of the book as by its marketability. Celebrity-endorsed drivel will get published because it will sell, not because it’s good, and hundreds of quality first novels will get rejected because the publisher knows readers buy books by authors they’ve already heard of.
4. Digital-only full-service publishers
This category didn’t exist until a few years ago and it remains under the radar. Digital-only publishers operate like small presses but only release their titles in e-book formats. This keeps their costs lower and allows them to take on riskier projects—such as first novels—that may not sell enough copies to catch the attention of a Big Six imprint. My own publisher, Diversion Books, is a leader in this category. Diversion is selective and prefers agented manuscripts. Diversion provides all the services you’d expect from a small press. If a title breaks out, they can work with the author to produce paper books. If not, the author retains all rights to self-publish in paper. This creates an interesting situation. My science thriller Petroplague is currently on sale with two different covers and two different publishers. One cover is for the professional e-book released by Diversion and one is for the paper books I produced at my own expense with a subsidy publisher.
This diversity of paths to publication is making indie publishing more accessible than ever. The challenge for writers today isn’t getting their book “published.” It’s choosing the right publishing process. Deciding which path to take demands that authors acknowledge their strengths (and weaknesses), assess their goals, check their bank balance, and calculate how much time they have. With this information, they can pursue the publishing option that’s best for them. There isn’t a right way or wrong way for everyone, as long as all ways lead to the same goal: getting our books in front of readers.
Amy Rogers is a Harvard-educated scientist who writes science-themed thrillers. Her debut novel Petroplague is about oil-eating bacteria contaminating the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyzing the city. She is a member of International Thrillers Writers Debut Class (2011-2012). At her website ScienceThrillers.com, Amy reviews books that combine real science with entertainment. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ScienceThriller or on her Facebook fan page.